Is Chicken Keto-Friendly?

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Written by Emilie Rice, MS, RDN, LDN, CSCS, CPT and medically reviewed by Abby Courtenay

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This food is a key protein commonly found in most people’s diets. There are many dietary changes you may have to make going onto a high-fat, low-carb diet, but is tossing out this poultry one of them? 

Not necessarily. Chicken can still be a keto diet staple.

In this article, we will cover a little bit of background and nutritional information on chicken, why it’s a good fit for a ketogenic diet, how much you can eat, how to prepare it, what to eat it with. We’ll also outline suitable substitutions and answer a few common questions you may have.


What is chicken?

Chicken is a figure of speech used to describe the fearful and faint-hearted. No really, in all seriousness, this food is a type of poultry. 

These birds have been domesticated and used for food for centuries. From what we can tell, they’ve been domesticated since about 6000 B.C.E. Archaeological evidence suggests that early civilizations began consuming hens for food in significant quantities somewhere between 400-200 B.C.E. in the Middle East.

These domesticated fowl are now the most commonly consumed animal protein in the USA.

Today, these birds are typically raised on farms. They are then sent to processing plants anywhere between 6 weeks to 1 1/2 years, depending on the desired texture and intended use of the final product. For example, tender meat would come from a young hen about 7 weeks old, whereas a rotisserie chicken would come from a 3-month-old hen.


Chicken nutrition facts

This poultry is considered a complete protein because it contains all the essential amino acids. 

It’s also a good source of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a hormone involved with feelings of satisfaction, happiness, and optimism.

Typically the breast is the leanest cut of the bird’s meat, while the thigh, drumstick and wing are less lean. The breasts are very popular because of their versatility. Here’s a quick look at those nutrition facts:

  • Serving size: 6 oz (174 g) cooked chicken breast
  • Calories: 289  kcal
  • Fat: 5.6  g
  • Net carbs (total carbs - fiber): 0 g
  • Total carbs: 0 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Protein: 56.0  g

There’s more to this meat than protein though. It’s also a good source of a few other vitamins and minerals.

  • B12 helps form red blood cells and maintain nerve function
  • Niacin nurtures healthy skin and nervous system
  • Pantothenic acid helps break down fats to use for energy
  • Zinc supports a healthy immune system
  • Iron helps create hemoglobin to transport oxygen to all tissues in your body




Can you eat chicken on a keto diet?

Absolutely! This poultry has zero carbs, making it a great choice for those on low-carb diets. 

With a hefty 56 g of protein per serving, it is an excellent protein selection for a keto diet. 

Protein is an essential nutrient for many important functions. It helps to maintain lean muscle mass and supports skin, hair, and bone health, just to name a few benefits. Including this bird while on a ketogenic diet helps you meet your daily protein needs to help your body accomplish all these things. 

People on low-carb diets may have increased risk for iron deficiencies. Including this poultry in a keto diet helps reduce the risk of developing an iron deficiency. 


How much chicken can you eat on the keto diet?

Due to this food’s low-carb nutrient profile, it is not limited as much as some other foods in a ketogenic diet. 

How much you can have while on a low-carb diet may depend on the individual. While further research is needed, people on keto diets may benefit from having higher protein intakes (1.6 g/kg of body weight per day) to preserve lean muscle mass. 

So in this case, a 150 lb person would need to consume 108 g of protein per day to hit the 1.6 g/kg target. 

Remember that one 6 ounce portion contains 56 g of protein, a little over half of this amount.  Two six-ounce portions of chicken per day would meet a 150 lb individual's daily protein needs at 1.6 g/kg/day quite easily. 

For most people, that’s plenty–unless of course you’re the one that can always “eat mor chikin” as the Chick-Fil-A slogan says. 


What kind of chicken can you have on keto? 

Fried chicken is a classic North American cuisine staple. But in general, this is not keto friendly. McDonald’s 10-piece Chicken McNuggets (99 g carbs) or a large order of Buffalo Wild Wings Jammin’ Jalapeno chicken wings (50 g carbs) are too high in carbs for most low-carb diets. 

Consider smaller orders of fried poultry to cut down on the carbs, or choose something else on the menu that has not been breaded and then fried like a grilled chicken sandwich without the bun. 

If you find yourself craving fried chicken, get in the kitchen and get creative! Make your own homemade keto-friendly fried version at home by breading it in almond flour or another kind of keto flour before frying. Still watch those portion sizes. 

Branch out too though. There are so many ways to prepare this bird from all around the globe that can be easy to prepare and keto-friendly. Use your low-carb diet as an opportunity to try new things, experience other food cultures, and develop your taste buds.

Plain chicken tastes rather bland. However, this neutral flavor canvas lends itself easily to almost any flavor profile–zesty, savory, sweet, sour, or spicy. This poultry adopts whatever flavor you put into it, giving the final dish a well-rounded, satisfying flavor profile. This makes it a versatile protein player for a low-carb diet that can fit into just about any ethnic cuisine, such as in Indian chicken keto dishes!

When it comes to cooking methods, grilling, baking, sauteing, stir-frying, braising, and roasting are just a few low-carb cooking methods to prepare this type of food.

Just think of all the different seasonings, cooking techniques, and cuisines you could experiment with. Sky’s the limit!

As you can see, it’s not about what you can’t have on a keto diet–or any other diet for that matter–but about what you can have. 




What can you eat this poultry with?

As a protein source, chicken serves as the highlight to a meal, so it’s important that the flavors and textures you’ve selected mesh well with each other and the low-carb sides you’ve chosen.

  • Toss grilled chicken strips with iceberg lettuce, parmesan cheese,  Linda’s Diet Delight Low Carb croutons, and Primal Kitchen Caesar Salad Dressing for a low-carb Caesar salad.
  • Bake the thighs or breasts in garlic butter and serve with Solely spaghetti squash noodles for a low-carb Italian-themed dinner.
  • Stir-fry it with low-carb vegetables such as mushrooms, broccoli, squash, zucchini and bell peppers, then serve with a hot and sour soup for an Asian flair.
  • Braise chicken breasts or thighs with lemon and then mix with your favorite low-carb vegetables and cauliflower rice for keto-friendly Spanish paella. 
  • Put grilled chicken and Mexican cheese together with Mr. Tortilla’s low-carb tortillas for a keto-friendly quesadilla. 
  • Pair a roasted or rotisserie chicken with a side of low-carb roasted vegetables such as asparagus or brussels sprouts. 
  • Make Indian chicken curry with coconut milk and serve with cauliflower rice.

As you can see, there are many keto-friendly methods to prepare this poultry and foods to eat it with. 


Keto-friendly chicken alternatives

Although you can prepare keto-friendly chicken a thousand different ways, it can lose its novelty for some people. Fortunately, this bird is not the only poultry. 

Poultry is a very broad meat category that includes domestic chicken, goose, guinea, turkey and duck. Game meats like wild turkey, goose, duck, pheasant and quail also fall into this protein category. 

This bird has 0 grams of carbohydrates and 34.7 grams of protein per cup. Consider changing it up with a few of these alternatives:

  • Turkey: This Thanksgiving classic poultry is low in carbs (<2g/ cup) and higher in protein (34g/cup), making it a year-round keto-friendly protein substitution.
  • Duck: While not as popular in the poultry section, duck has zero carbs and 26g of protein per cup, making it a suitable keto protein.
  • Pheasant: For those of you who enjoy game meats, pheasant is a nice alternative with 0g carbs and 44g of protein per cup.
  • Goose: This is a great keto-friendly game meat for roasting with 0g carbs and 35g protein in one cup.
  • Quail: Another game meat, quail has 0g of carbs and about 34g of protein per cup of cooked meat. 

As you can see, this bird is not the only keto-friendly protein in the poultry aisle.


FAQ about chicken on a keto diet

Still have questions? Here are a few answers to some common questions people have about including chicken while on a keto diet.

Ketosis is a fancy way of saying your body is burning fat for energy. Your body is always burning a ratio of fats and carbs for energy, and once your body has run out of carb stores, it turns to fats for energy. 

However, if there is an excess of protein in the diet, the body starts to convert this excess protein into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis (meaning that carbs are once again used for energy instead of fat), so eating too much protein can kick you out of ketosis. 

The key is to have enough protein to support lean muscle mass maintenance but not too much to kick you out of ketosis. Most sources agree that about 20% of your total energy should come from protein to reach this balance. 

In order to have the USDA organic label, poultry must be fed organic feed and raised in a humane environment. This doesn’t guarantee that organic chicken is nutritionally superior to the non-organic version.

Other factors play a role in how nutritious a food is. For example, steaming, stir-frying, or roasting food will preserve the nutritional value of a food much more than deep-frying and char-broiling everything. 

The methods you use to prepare your food influence the nutritional value of the final product. You have some control. If you can’t afford or don’t have access to the organic meat, don’t stress over it. 

Consuming “rare” and undercooked meats is not a good idea. This poultry is no exception; it contains several bacteria that can cause severe foodborne illnesses like Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens. 

Rare chicken may still have undercooked sections of meat containing live bacteria that would cause a foodborne illness.

To prevent foodborne illness, store in a plastic bag to prevent raw juices from leaking into your other foods, use separate cutting boards and utensils when preparing raw chicken, and cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Always refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours. 

Most importantly, don’t forget to wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after handling raw meat. 

Generally meat products have the potential to raise your cholesterol due to higher saturated fat content. Since the keto diet is already high in fat, those with high cholesterol levels have valid reason to be concerned while on a ketogenic diet. High intakes of dietary saturated fat may exacerbate the situation. 

In this case, it may depend on how the fowl was raised. One study suggested free-range meat has lower lipid and cholesterol concentrations than its commercially raised equivalent. Therefore the free-range, humanely raised birds might be higher quality and not raise your cholesterol as much as a farm-raised hen. 

With so many labels on our food packaging that aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s hard to know what they all mean. These two labels look the same, but they really aren’t identical. 

Both fowl are raised on farms; that’s where these two labels are alike. The major difference is that the free-range hens have the choice to roam outside instead of being confined inside a small coop for their entire lives.

While a heavily marbled ribeye steak may be higher in fat, it does not necessarily make it a better protein choice for a keto diet. 

Remember that high intakes of saturated fat can potentially increase cholesterol levels (which are related to an increased risk for heart disease). Saturated fats are the fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter and the marbling in that ribeye steak. 

It’s better to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat to reduce your risk for heart disease. For example, to remove the skin of the bird and cook with some olive oil instead. You’ll get the same amount of fat, but the quality of the fat will differ. 

Both white and red meats are good sources of protein for ketogenic diets. It is best to opt for lean, high-quality cuts of meat no matter which color you choose and pair that with a good quality unsaturated fat like olive oil, avocado, nuts, or seeds.